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Thailand’s military machinations will define post-election political manoeuvring

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Pro-royalist activists shout slogans during a rally calling the US not to interfere in Thailand's election process, in front of the US embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, 24 May 2023 (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha).

In Brief

Over a month after Thailand’s progressive Move Forward party and its prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat won a decisive victory in the country’s general election, a minefield of legal, political and military obstacles is hindering his accession to the premiership.


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The Election Commission (EC) is investigating whether Pita contested the election while illegally holding media shares. If found guilty, Pita would be barred from office, Move Forward could be dissolved and its winning MPs might be disqualified. On 20 June, the EC endorsed all 500 winning electoral candidates, though it left open the possibility of investigating any later.

But the Move Forward-led eight-party, 312-member coalition-in-waiting — which includes Pheu Thai — still needs 64 of the 250-member junta-appointed Senate to achieve the constitutionally-mandated 376 seats to form government. Even before parliamentary approval, Move Forward and Pheu Thai remain at loggerheads over which of them will fill the slot of Lower House speaker. Since only a speaker can nominate a prime minister, their failure to agree could prevent any from being selected.

In fact, Pheu Thai would clearly like to dump Move Forward so that it can lead a coalition of its own. The speaker squabble provides a convenient issue for doing so, though cabinet allocation disagreements or an EC verdict against Pita could also do the trick.

Rumours have spread about secret negotiations to form an alternative coalition between Pheu Thai (141 seats), Bhumjai Thai (71 seats) and the Democrats (25 seats). Pheu Thai has publicly refused to form government with Prayuth’s 36-seat Ruam Thai Sang Chart party or Prawit’s 40-seat Palang Pracharat party because of their role in the 2014–2019 junta. Though it might ignore the vehemently anti-Thaksin Prayuth, Pheu Thai may ultimately accept Prawit’s help to obtain the premiership.

Depending on how successfully arch-royalist forces manipulate the Senate, it could vote down any potential Pheu Thai prime minister. If that happens, Bhumjai Thai and its leader Anutin Charnvirakul could seek the premiership. Anutin would be supported by the five principal arch-royalist parties, comprising 182 seats, and his demonstrated royalism would placate the Senate.

But without Pheu Thai, a prime minister with a minority in the Lower House could easily be censured, unless the EC disqualifies all 151 Move Forward MPs. Anutin could remain prime minister until Thailand’s arch-royalist Senate loses its powers to vote with the Lower House in selecting prime ministers — constitutionally scheduled to end in May 2024 — but his government would be frail and short-lived.

Alternatively, if a coalition is agreed upon whereby Anutin is the prime ministerial candidate heading a government composed of the larger Pheu Thai, micro-parties and either the Democrats or Prawit’s Palang Pracharat, the Senate would likely affirm Anutin and he could form a long-lasting majority. If Anutin cannot become prime minister, the parties of Prawit and Prayuth will see prime ministerial nominations in that order.

While it is conceivable, though unlikely, that Thailand’s entrenched monarchy and monarchised military would allow Move Forward’s Pita or Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin to become prime minister, such a scenario would likely lead right-wing political opponents to act to bring the coalition down. This could return Thailand to the years of political pandemonium in 2011–2014 that preceded the most recent military coup.

Amid the political turbulence, Prayuth Chan-ocha continues as caretaker prime minister. By staying in office, he can influence the forces who might stage a future coup by signing off on the military reshuffle list which prime ministers must give to the king for endorsement each year.

The reshuffle takes effect annually on 1 October and Prayuth could send a list to the palace at the beginning of August before he steps down. 2023 is extremely significant because it is the first time in at least two decades that all security commanders (including army, navy, air force and police) will be rotated simultaneously. The army is by far the most important service, with the others having a far smaller budget. Prayuth wants to guarantee that arch-royalist military loyalists, especially from powerful pre-cadet classes 23 and 26, take all key army command postings.

In particular, he is seeking to ensure that his personal protégé Deputy Army Commander General Jaroenchai Hintao becomes Army Chief while Deputy Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces General Songwit Noonpakdi and First Army Commander General Pana Klaewplodsuk become Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Deputy Army Commander respectively. Prawit-loyalist Assistant Army Chief General Suksan Nongbualuang has a chance to beat out Jaroenchai as Army Commander, after which Pana would succeed him. Should Pita or Srettha become prime minister, they would likely prefer the weaker General Ukrit Boontanonda to be army chief.

But a military selections board, dominated by arch-royalist service chiefs, votes on promotions above the level of general and it is doubtful that Ukrit would get the nod. Moreover, though Pita or Srettha could try to cancel Prayuth’s reshuffle, Jaroenchai, as Deputy Army Commander, would simply become the acting chief and only he or Suksan could pass the board. The leadership of Thailand’s army-dominant military will not be obedient to progressive civilian leaders and look set to oppose any reformist measures by Move Forward or Pheu Thai.

Thailand’s progressive 2023 election winners are confronted by a gauntlet of obstacles. Move Forward and Pheu Thai face cases before the Election Commission and must pass the junta-appointed Senate. An alternative coalition comprising only conservative parties or Pheu Thai with conservative parties could easily form, especially if the Election Commission disqualifies Move Forward MPs. If a progressive prime minister takes office, Thailand will likely look forward to growing pandemonium. Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Prayuth will use the reshuffle to ensure that the military leadership remains firmly independent of elected civilian control for years to come.

Dr Paul Chambers is Lecturer at the Centre of ASEAN Community Studies, Naresuan University, Thailand, and has published extensively on military affairs in Southeast Asia. 

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